In Data We Trust: Covid and the Limits of Control

Every respective era makes collective societal decisions about which voices do and do not hold sway over people’s behavior. A quick glance at the long sweep of history reveals that as we tire of one voice of authority, we go in search of another. Our contemporary society is no different, and indeed it may be the case that we may be on the verge of yet another collective shift in our allegiance to whose voice we follow, with the arrival of, and response to Covid as the game-changer.

Who Is In Control? Shifting Voices of Public Authority

Early in human history adherents of pagan religions built their daily routines around sacrifices made to a wide array of gods in order to obtain what was needed. It was pagan priests and priestesses who were the perceived manipulators of the forces of nature in order to bring fertility, healthy crops, cures from headaches, victory over an opponent, an end to digestive problems, and the obtaining of wealth, just to name a few important ends of daily life.   While today we term paganism a “religion,” that designation masks its true nature. It was fundamentally all about exercising control over the forces of the world. Paganism and its clergy were the leading societal influencers of their day because of the promise of control that they offered.

Later in time paganism would be gradually supplanted by Divine Revelation. The people of Israel received God’s revelation first, and then after them in the fullness of Christ’s teachings the Christian Church would carry God’s message to the ends of the earth. This brought liberation from the daily fear of the forces of nature and the endless cycle of manipulation of the natural world associated with paganism as it became understood that God alone governs creation. God continually revealed that he is mighty, loving, and that he has a plan for humanity and the world.  Therefore, HE is in control, freeing us of the seduction, and the burden, of having to control all that acted upon us. A Christian believer is most fundamentally sustained by the hope of the resurrection that breaks the controlling power of death itself.

No thinking of this sort was possible to a world that worshiped nature because nature’s forces were cruel, and the pagan gods were capricious.  Christian revelation fully explained human nature, the working of the world, and the right ordering of society.  Thus, for long stretches of history, it was Christian revelation, continually guarded and articulated anew by its clergy, that held wide-spread sway over people’s behavior.

Eventually a discipline of science was able to emerge from the cradle of Christianity as its own distinct authority, along with expanded ideas of civil government as its own distinct authority.  Each of these voices of authority could come into existence because humanity knew that God had ultimate authority, allowing us the freedom to study the natural world rather than worship it, and to govern ourselves after the pattern of a divine law giver who was just, rather than arbitrary.  Rightly understood, these sources of authority brought a degree of liberation from the earthly sufferings of the body and of the pains of social unrest.

In later eras, the authority of the Church and Christian truth began to be only partially accepted, or even dismissed outrightly, by large segments of society. Western government became either anti-Christian, or Christian in concept only, and in various sectors of the world it replaced the authority of the Church.  During the same segment of history, the authoritative voice of science grew in its power to convince, doing so more and more in a manner that for many people was in ideological opposition to principles of Divine Revelation.  As science grew more ideological apart from its Christian roots, it became increasingly a means for control. The same can be said for government.

In the late 20th Century, after a series of blows to institutional credibility over Vietnam, Watergate, and increasingly divided political factions, our collective trust in the voice of consent-based democratic government has been badly shaken in some sectors of society.  Increasingly government is showing the limits of its ability to unite the human family and of its credibility.  The authority of the Church was also further weakened in the same era as a result of the tragic sins of its clergy, and also by decades of internal debates over questions of disciplines and teachings in the wake of Vatican II, leading to widespread lukewarm observance on the part of the laity.  The gradual collapse of widespread trust in these voices of authority opened the door for a new set of influences to take their place.

King Data and the Scientific-Media Establishment

What is it that holds sway over us all these days since the Church and Government have now become so ineffective in shaping broad-based public opinion?   It could be termed the scientific-media establishment.  Even the most suspicious among us are very slow to question whatever science and medicine say.   “Data” floods the world on a daily basis, and it is now the unquestioned purveyor of authority and truth.  The new clergy are doctors and scientists, and their evangelists are the mainstream press, along with the ever-shifting networks of social media.  It is data that now governs our daily routines more than anything else, and rarely do we ever question if that is a good thing, or if there is any such thing as data that is detached from an ideological agenda.  In a world where data is divine, we do not step back to analyze the easy connection between “data” and “control.”

Data Driven Morality As A Mechanism of Control

Humans are instinctively, by God’s design, moral, philosophical, and political creatures.  Where there is not a moral system to govern us, or when it does not come from Revelation, we create one.  This is the reason why, these days, all of the data that is continually dumped upon us by the media, cannot help but give rise to camps, divisions, and political / moral positions that force people to be either for or against whatever data-driven ideological agenda we are making our way through in the given moment.

In this way, ideological science merged with prevailing politics generates new public moral norms that hold sway over the society and become very powerful.   In such a climate, what emerges are forces of social scandal that paint as immoral anyone who does not conform to the new prevailing moral norms that are rooted in data.

Once upon a time, in a heavily Christian world, it was the neighbors who enforced the Christian moral norms about, for example, divorce and cohabitation before marriage.  People lived in shame of the neighbors learning about them living with a person to whom they were not married. Much the same was true for modesty of dress in public. The norm enforced itself much of the time merely through peer pressure.

Today, the new moral norms driven by data, the media, and newly-generated, government backed ideologies, enforce a whole different set of shames and rewards.  We care very little at the moment about anyone getting a divorce, or people walking around in public half-clothed.  However, we are very upset if people do not wear a face mask.  If someone is not wearing one, they are hauled for swift condemnation before the public tribunal of science and data by the angry, obedient neighbors.  The same can be said about public peer pressure to display rainbow flags, to join in a protest rally, and, until Covid, not to use disposable waste materials, just to name a few examples.  As the last example of the sudden eclipse of the Green Movement in the now plastic, pre-packaged, non car-pool, non public transportation world of Covid shows, these data driven public moral norms can shift and change at a dizzying pace.

It is true that wrapped up in all of the new public norms are the left-over shreds of what Christianity brought to the world: care for the vulnerable, attention to the sick, etc.  Our new societal norms are not all bad, making them seductive for Christians. However, when detached from over-arching and ultimately unifying principles of Revelation that outline the complete picture of the human person, of creation, and of God’s divine plan for society, all of the data-based norms run the risk of becoming highly dangerous.  On their own they are not capable of fostering unity.  On the contrary, they further fan the flames of social division as they quickly turn into mechanisms of control.

Returning to the Pagan Allure of Control

We have come full circle back to paganism because we have detached the pursuit of personal and public health from the ultimate divine promise of life after death, salvation, and the Second Coming.   If earthly health is our new ultimate good, in the absence of an eternal life, then it is a small step from worshiping health to worshiping nature again as the source and summit of the cure for all of our problems.  It is the Covid virus that we fear now more than God.  It is the promise of a vaccine, rather than the promise of heaven, that drives all of our public choices.

Like the paganism of old, what is most seductive about blind obedience to data linked to scientific observations is the allure of control.  We begin to believe that we can control everything, and every natural force that acts upon us, if only we study it enough, and manipulate our surroundings sufficiently.  We develop an exaggerated sense of our own power and influence over the pains and forces of life, growing very upset when our attempts to control them fail.  We think less and less of the consequences of controlling, by force or penalty, the behaviors of individual persons if we can justify the control in the name of some perceived greater good, such as health.  Before long we have ceased to live life out of fear, and we have ceased to be human, opting instead for isolation, fragmentation, frustration, and anxiety.

The Revolt Against King Data?

Ultimately, as history shows, the absolute authority of the science and media establishment will also crumble as people begin to realize the limits of its competence, and its inability to provide us with the ultimate meaning to life.  Science is based solely on our senses, and our senses are extremely faulty sources of information, as anyone who (for example) wears eye glasses knows so well.  That is why science is continually changing its mind and its teachings, while the media races to report the latest, daily mind-change as though it was a new utterance from some divine oracle, worshiping at the altar of data.

That works well enough when the changes impact people’s lives merely around the margins.  I remember learning in science class as a child the great, certain, and unchangeable truth that Pluto was the ninth planet of our sacred solar system.  Then one day I was told there are only eight planets.  Pluto was demoted and the text books were quickly re-written.  One day it was pronounced by the medical, science, media establishment that eggs were one of the worst things we could eat.  After a brief passage of time the same magisterial entities explained that eggs were now great, even though eggs themselves had not actually changed.  Once upon a very recent time, due to the wonders of science, we invented and widely used an amazing material called asbestos that was offered as a solution to so many problems related to public building safety.  We were also very proud of the public health benefits offered by the widespread use of DDT as a pesticide.  Then one day, all that turned out to be bad.  We were so eager to create genetically modified crops to stop world hunger. Now we are realizing that perhaps this is the origin of so many of our food allergies.   On I could go with the sins of science, which are erased daily by a media with constant amnesia for what it reported only yesterday.

The population is forgiving, for awhile, of those types of mistakes.  Perhaps the arrival of Covid, and all of our attempts to control it, will bring about a new questioning of our widespread trust in the science and media establishment. Right now the entire global population is being subjected to a daily whiplash of shifting behavioral norms and expectations, resulting in the collapse of an entire global economy.  It is all driven by data (that is largely untested), as well as the allure of control.  We have convinced vast sectors of the global population that it is human behavior, based on new moral norms about masks, distancing, and the like, that will control a force of nature, namely, a virus.  This places enormous pressure on individuals to believe that their failure to comply with the latest data driven moral public norm (masks, self-quarantining) is going to directly result in someone else’s death.  The hubris, and the cruelty of this type of propaganda, is staggering and it is de-humanizing.  Eventually, the population will rise up against it as they see it for what it is.  It is control disguised as charity.

The Need for the Christian Voice Remains

We have faced wide-spread outbreaks of deadly diseases before in human history, and we have indeed relied upon the helpful expertise of medical science to tame them for the preservation of human life.  However, this is the first time in centuries that we are doing so in the absence of a well-established widespread Christian worldview that checks the runaway control mentality of ideological science.  A Christian culture does seek to preserve life, but we do so knowing the limits of our control, knowing that a provident God guides all events, and knowing that earthly health is a temporary, limited good.  People die all the time, and the only real liberator from the fear and control that surrounds this fact is the Christian hope of salvation and resurrection.  In the absence of that, we are back to pagan control, widespread anxiety, and public manipulation.

Right now it is important for believing Christians to continue to place our hope in God and his promise of salvation as the essential bearer of perspective about all the forces that are colliding around us.  Health is a good, data can be useful, science rightly viewed can point us to the divine, and government under God’s laws is of great value.   If Covid does begin to usher in a needed check on the runaway powers of ideological science, media, and political quests for control it is because God has allowed this pandemic all for the purification of what, in the right perspective, are otherwise good things.  Even with the damaged credibility of the Church these days, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the Church remains the bearer of God’s revelation which was given to the world to purify and to save in every generation.  We need to present his teachings, anew and with vigor, to a world that right now lacks perspective, and seriously needs to hear them.

About Father Nathan Reesman

On Twitter: @FatherReesman Father Nathan Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, ordained in 2006. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin. He is also the Courage and EnCourage chaplain for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Courage is an apostolate of the Catholic Church that ministers to men and women who experience same sex attraction. Father Reesman is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, obtaining his Bachelors of Arts in Political Science in the year 2000. He completed his seminary studies at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2006, obtaining a Masters of Divinity. Father Reesman completed post-graduate studies at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, obtaining a Doctor of Ministry in 2019.
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